The Sad Saga of Caster Semenya

09/15/2009

Caster Semenya triumphant, returning home

So as a transwoman, I’ve been following the Caster Semenya saga pretty closely. For those who don’t know, Caster Semenya is an 18-year-old South African track star who won the 800m World Championship earlier this year. However, she did a bad thing.

She did well without being sufficiently feminine. As such, she was immediately scrutinized by a bitter white rival and opened up to open debate about whether or not she was “secretly” a man, a debate that almost entirely focused on her outward gender performance, which was of a vivacious butch jock (as most athletes are in any gender or field).

Gender tests surrounding the olympics have a long and bitter history I won’t go into much here. In later years, the standards have devolved entirely into politically-minded mish-mash owing to the remarkable flexibility medically shown in the question of being “male” or “female”.

And while the post I linked to argues that there may be some advantages to transgendered athletes or stark differences between the sexes in general, these differences have never been compared to the more substantial “natural” differences that have never been questioned under any circumstance.

By far, the single most potent definer of athletic ability is ATP efficiency as it plays out in the balance between sprinters and endurance runners. This provides a substantial advantage that training and focus cannot give. Combined with other skeletal abnormalities that are equally agendered (see development of long legs or long flipper-like feet in the case of Michael Phelps) and many sports become entirely a highlight of the variety of the human condition, accidents of biology more than true battles of “merit”.

But while that illusion is never examined, it has held great consequence in the area of women’s sports. Women’s sports has always been the source of a dichotomy. Designed and promoted in the recognition of the bars of sexism against competition, it is supposed to serve as proof that women need not be traditionally feminine, need not bar “masculine” activities such as athletic competition from their lives to be women. It is to promote athleticism amongst women so that more may compete and thus more may begin to rival the times and outputs of those in the male world.

But this world, like the greater world it inhabits is striken by the same disease of sexism. The assumption is made even at the highest levels that women are naturally inferior in all competitions and that not only will an elite-level athlete defeat an elite-level female, but a “mediocre” man can defeat and blow-out elite-level female competitors just by putting on a wig. And so the lines must be enforced.

Leaving aside the fact that the aforementioned statement is bullshit. One cannot move from mediocre to exceptional just by becoming a woman and there are far more factors that make you exceptional besides the sex-related factors. Let’s also ignore that only transgendered people can appreciate just how psychologically disturbing and annoying it is to “live as the wrong sex”. Your body fights you and just looking in the mirror can open a giant hole of self-loathing. It is not something most could endure for any great period of time.

Leaving aside all of that, it has been an open invitation and weapon to deploy on any exceptional female athlete. Any woman who performs well couldn’t be a female Usain Bolt, a natural competitor, but immediately suspected of having secret masculinity, an “unfair” advantage not already seen in her aerodynamic suit, her mutant long legs, or the way her body metabolizes and stabilizes her energy for greatest efficiency in the 800m race. She didn’t even win by all that much, a mere breaking of the national record, rather than the world record. Without the whine of her competitor, she would have been quickly forgotten as everyone remarked on the “talents” of Usain Bolt.

And in case you think this again hyperbole, this cycle has been in motion every time a woman is both exceptional and butch. A simple google search will also reveal much of the debate centered on Semenya’s butch appearance and small breasts rather than any objective standard.

This fact was not lost on her as she was soon dressed up in femme attire and accoutrements entirely as a response to those who had been critically judging her gender on this most public of spaces.

Now, it is important to note here, critically, that Caster Semenya has always been a woman, has always defined herself as a woman, has lived her life as a woman, has to this date considered herself to be a woman, not transgendered, not a transman. It is critical to note this here as to understand both the statement to come as well as what a public scrutiny of gender is like.

It is a horde of people thinking they have a right to decide where you belong with only an ignorant impression of your gender proclivities and expression with zero understanding of your internal sex. And their opinion is to be given credence over your own. Transpeople undergoing Harry-Benjamin style therapy for “permission” to transition know this feeling very well. It is humbling, infuriating, and leaves you feeling powerless and adrift.

And for her there’s no point at the end of it, just the threat of the removal of everything that has brought you joy, the threat that all of this can be taken away because you were suspicious. Now the public and an arbitrary standard noone fully understands can remove the one passion that has defined your life and remove from you the dream of a little girl (to compete, perchance to medal in the Olympic games, to bring honor to your country and family, and most importantly to yourself).

Gone in an instant.

So when the test came back that she is in fact a form of intersex, a condition that is inconsistently ruled upon, that giant maw of uncertainty grew wider still as well as increasing the amount of vitriolic speculation amongst the public over how much advantage it has given her (and little examination over the possibility of none above the rest of her nongendered abnormalities).

Thankfully, her country is fighting for her, though she has already dropped out of her next race as the rumors continue to fly and as the deliberating bodies continue to put her training and competitions on hold until they decide what to do with the rest of her life.

And again, not hyperbole, if she is found to be “too manly” for the arbitrary standard (testosterone levels and receptors, something not similarly examined or enforced in male athletes outside of doping laws), she will be barred from competing in female competitions as well as likely male competitions. She’d be struck out from that euphoric moment of dreaming of an Olympic medal she has worked her entire life training for to never being able to run in a competition again.

As such, this should only surprise the terminally devoid of empathy.

Caster Semenya has been placed on Suicide Watch and yet another paper reporting on it decides her gender for her declaring her “proved a hermaphrodite”.

The world is trying to enforce their ideas on gender on her, a deliberative body will decide if she’s “too secretly male” to compete as she always has without incident or complaint for 18 years, to decide if she will ever be allowed to run at a moment most athletes begin the fevered dream and focus that they might be able to make a run at an Olympic gold medal, perhaps even being considered a favorite.

But hey, she “may” be allowed to keep the one gold medal she won though her competitor “may” also be awarded one as well you know to make clear what they think of Caster.

And so, this bright beautiful young butch woman is under suicide watch.

I end with this quote from lawmaker Butana Komphela, from the South African sports committee: “She is like a raped person. She is afraid of herself and does not want anyone near her. If she commits suicide, it will be on all our heads. The best we can do is protect her and look out for her during this trying time.”

No shit.

It’s time for the IAFF to get over themselves and accept the reality of gender in this world, the incongruity of sex and stop creating the type of world where they are pushing a strong woman to the brink of death “figuring out her sex for her”.

And it’s time for all of us to stop thinking ourselves the only real arbiters of someone’s real sex entirely from ignorant assumptions of gender performance.

(P.S. it is interesting to note how quickly these people who are so quick to argue that genitals are primacy in the case of transpeople so quickly abandon that standard to attack Caster Semenya whose outward genitals are in fact all woman)

(P.P.S. it is also worth noting that the media were the first to know about the results of the test, not her. This is because they are more important when one is considered a “mutant” by society. This was a warning to all gender nonconformists and intersex people out there by society in general. Don’t think you’re people. You know my response to that: Fuck. That. Shit.)

3 Responses to “The Sad Saga of Caster Semenya”

  1. Kat said

    Thanks for the first post/article that put into words the unease I felt about how, to borrow your term, the Caster Semanya saga. Shocking, how in the name of supposed athletic fairness any consideration of her humanity was sacrificed …

  2. Noir said

    Amazing post, thank you

  3. […] The Sad Saga of Caster Semenya Women’s sports has always been the source of a dichotomy. Designed and promoted in the recognition of the bars of sexism against competition, it is supposed to serve as proof that women need not be traditionally feminine, need not bar “masculine” activities such as athletic competition from their lives to be women. It is to promote athleticism amongst women so that more may compete and thus more may begin to rival the times and outputs of those in the male world. […]

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